The long days on the road are coming to a close, thankfully. Our drive from Columbia MO to Independence IA (300 miles) ended with a boom, literally. Less than 30 minutes after we arrived at the small city-run RV park here, a wave of intense thunderstorms passed through and terrorized us for a couple of hours. The clouds above were forming counter-clockwise swirls — a very bad sign — and the winds were strong enough to rock the trailer even with the stabilizers down. As always, when caught in bad weather, we began looking for an emergency exit, which in this case would have been a nearby brick shower house.
Fortunately, the storms passed over us without causing any damage, and eventually left us with a gorgeous red and blue sunset, and fewer dead bugs plastered to the exterior skin of the Airstream.
I am still talking to the manufacturer about the hitch problem we encountered recently, but since I’m getting “outed” left and right by my friends, I will go ahead and start acknowledging the new tow vehicle. It’s a 2009 Mercedes Benz GL320 with “Bluetec” engine. We chose this because it is a diesel 7-passenger SUV which meets our needs. We expect to use it for many years of towing. Sadly, with American and Japanese manufacturers pulling back on their promised diesel vehicles, the only diesel SUVs available new are coming out of Europe. VW, BMW, Audi, and MB all offer them today, while Nissan, Toyota, Chrysler, GM, and Honda have all announced light diesel programs and then canceled them.
I know this will kick off a firestorm of questions and controversy, because I’ve chosen a non-traditional tow vehicle. I’ll try to answer the FAQs here:
Fuel consumption: So far, with the engine still breaking in, we are getting 14.0 MPG towing at 60 MPH, flat to moderately rolling terrain, no wind. Going to 65 MPH costs us 1 MPG. I am told that the economy will improve as the engine breaks in. Still, that’s a solid 30% increase over the Armada.
Loading: Yes, we are under the vehicle weight ratings. That includes Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR), and Gross Axle Weight Ratings (GAWR). The factory hitch is rated to 7500 lbs and 600 lbs of tongue, but we’ve substantially reinforced it, as readers of this blog know. I regard the factory hitch as inadequate for even the rated 600 lbs of tongue weight, so beware.
Performance: The ride and handling are excellent, once hitched up properly. The interior is as quiet as you’d expect. Power is excellent, thanks to the diesel engine that puts out 398 ft-lbs of torque. It’s unbelievably quiet when running, to the point that many people don’t know it is a diesel. The 7-speed automatic keeps the engine in the ideal power band all the time. I think that once other manufacturers get their acts together, engine/transmission combinations like this will be the future of recreational towing.
What I like compared to the Armada: Better fuel economy (22/28 MPG not towing), much nicer to drive especially when not towing, better towing handling at highway speed, high ground clearance when off-roading, extensive safety and security features, cheaper insurance, less propensity to roll over, much more powerful air conditioning, slightly more torque, diesel reliability and durability, 7-speed transmission, less frequent oil changes, longer cruising range, full-time AWD.
What I don’t like compared to the Armada: Expensive to buy, slightly more expensive to maintain, no spare tire, less interior space, slightly less carrying capacity, too much tricky electronics, smaller sideview mirrors, limited third-row access, no aftermarket hitches, no low range, fewer service centers, expensive tires.
Recommendation?: Most people travel with a ton of “stuff.” Most people never weigh their rig, either. For best value, largest cargo area, and less concern about overloading, go with a pickup truck. Seriously. For most people, that’s the right choice. Many of the SUVs require you to think carefully about what you carry, to avoid overloading the rear axle.
Also, Mercedes is not particularly oriented to towing. The 2009 GL’s have a driver’s side knee airbag, which makes placement of the brake controller more challenging. The 2009 models also have a urea tank (part of the “clean diesel” exhaust system) where the spare normally goes, so there’s no spare tire. (It uses run-flat tires, and I carry a tire plug kit, but there is no substitute for a spare. This is the major flaw of the design.)
The hitch design is inadequate, as I’ve already mentioned. There are no aftermarket hitches that fit this car, so you must buy the factory hitch — and even when you do get that option, you have to buy some wiring for the brake controller and there’s an additional charge to reprogram one of the computers so that the car will send signals to the brake controller. For me the icing on the cake was that the computer is so “smart” it won’t recognize a trailer with LED lights, so you have to go through some hoops to fix that issue as well.
So with all those issues and limitations, you might wonder why I bothered with it. Why not buy a 2009 Dodge RAM 2500 4×4 with Cummins diesel with Megacab, for $56k? Well, some people like driving trucks, and some people don’t. As part of this exercise I have talked to quite a number of people who are currently towing with Mercedes (mostly the less expensive and smaller ML-class), and they all love them. I’ve also talked to many people who tow with big pickups and love them. To each their own, I say. Be safe, and have fun.
I’ll report further on the performance of the Mercedes as we accumulate miles. The real proof of its appropriateness for the task will come only after many miles and (at least) several years of towing.
Today we are going to check out a Frank Lloyd Wright house here in Independence, and then scoot up to Madison. There will be no escape from the heat, however. The “Airstream effect” has already begun. Whenever hundreds of Airstreams gather for the International Rally, the local area always experiences record high temperatures. The poor people of Madison WI have no idea what is coming, I fear. If we don’t hit 100 degrees during the rally week, it will be the first time in many years.